10/7/14

Novelty (or Practical Habituation)

I have been thinking a lot of late about novelty in dog training. More technically, I’ve been thinking about habituation (i.e. a type of non-associative learning) and how it works in the ‘real world’ for changing dog behaviour in simple ways.

 

Dogs can habituate to water.

Dogs can habituate to water.

When I was a kid, I grew up with a chow chow called Ted. Ted mostly lived in the backyard, but as a child, I one day decided that Ted was going to get a walk every day. And so I walked him every day for about a month (before moving onto the next project, as kids do). Ted started the month with enthusiastic jumping regarding the prospect of a walk. He also vocalised a little bit. By the end of the month, Ted had the lead put on with no fuss, no jumping, no noise, and soldiered on for the walk.

Sure, I could’ve implemented some kind of training regime. But, in reality, I didn’t. Ted started the month thinking walks were novel, and his behaviour stemmed from this novelty. At the end of the month, he was habituated to the walk. Previously, the outside world meant a lot to him and resulted in him getting aroused. By the end of the month, it meant close to nothing, and his arousal levels were far less.

 

Then there’s our foster dog Bandit. I picked him up from his surrendering family, one hour from my house, and drove him home. He drooled, paced, and stressed the whole way home. On ever subsequent car trip, Bandit’s behaviour got more mild. Recently, I drove him to a boarding facility about 20 minutes away, and he was laying, asleep, by the time we got there. No training went into this. Bandit just ‘got over it’ because he habituated to the car – it became less novel.

 

I find many outside dogs are often ‘over the top’ when they meet people, and I think this is a novelty thing, too. If dogs only see people on an occasional basis (i.e. when you go outside), of course they’re going to be excited to see you! If they were inside and saw you constantly, their responses are going to be more mild. Indeed, with most attention seeking behaviours (e.g. jumping up, head nuzzling, vocalising), these behaviours will decrease if the dog has sufficient attention to start with. If attention is given liberally, the resource becomes less important, and the dog’s behaviour changes.

 

I think the concept of novelty is often overlooked in dog training. Sometimes, dog behaviour will ‘get better’ simply because the novelty of something wears off.

Doing many varied things often can do more than maintaining socialisation – it can reduce novelty and so also decrease undesirable behaviour associated with that novelty.

05/27/14

Preparing for Earthdog Season

It’s almost the time of the year for earthdog once again! Earthdog is a ‘winter sport’, spanning from approximately May to August, weather permitting.

Earthdog is a fun sport for dogs of ‘earthdog type’ (small terriers, dachshunds, and mixed breeds of), where these little dogs get to test out their natural instincts. The sport involves small tunnels being set up, so these dogs can have the chance to ‘go to ground’ and encounter ‘quarry’ at the end.  In South Australia, our quarry is typically a deceased rabbit, but judges have the discretion to use other quarry (like fluffy toys).  For many terrier and dachshund type dogs, this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for, to put all their fire and enthusiasm into what they were bred to do!

 

Earthdog den setup at SACA Park, Kilburn, Adelaide, South Australia.

Earthdog den setup at SACA Park, Kilburn, Adelaide, South Australia.

 

There are two key parts of teaching earthdog: Teaching a dog to travel through the small tunnels, and teaching the dog to ‘work’ the quarry.

 

Tunnel Training

In earthdog tests, we use wooden liners to create tunnels. For those wanting to train at home, you can easily make tunnels out of cardboard. Tunnels should be 9 inches by 9 inches square. For the instinct test, the ‘easiest’ level for earthdog, they are expected to go through 3 metres of tunnel with one right angled turn. Lots of dogs have difficulties with corners, so do make sure you design your home made tunnels with a corner! You can make many segments to create 3 metres or more worth of tunnel.

The simplest way to get your dog to go through an earthdog tunnel is to lay a food trail and get your dog to gobble it up piece by piece, going through the tunnel as they do so.  Overtime you can make the food trail more sparse, and use a word to get your dog to go through the tunnel – a command like “Tunnel!” or “Get the bunnies!” are most suitable.

 

Quarry Training

In an earthdog test, once your dog gets to the end of the tunnel, your dog is expected to ‘work’ the quarry’. Working is normally digging or scratching, barking, or biting at the quarry. I would suggest you either invest in your own deceased bunny (most butchers can order one in for you – make sure they keep the fur on) or, if you’re faint hearted, invest in a particularly fluffy and life like toy. See if you can get your dog excited and tugging on the bunny or toy. Having a dog very committed to getting their quarry is an excellent start.

The next step is to get the dog to work even when they cannot get the quarry. Set your dog up behind a wooden or cardboard grill (again, you can make this out of cardboard boxes).  As you wave your quarry in front of the grill, your dog needs to work (bark, dig, scratch, or bite) at the grill from the opposite side.  Reward your dog by giving him his quarry for small inclinations to work at the start, but over time, build up what you expect from him.  At the most advanced level of earthdog, the dog needs to work for 60 seconds – so if you can get 60 seconds of continual work from him, you’ve got what you need!

 

Put it all together

If you have a dog that is going through tunnels, and is working quarry through a barrier, you then need to put the pieces together by putting that barrier at the end of the tunnel.

 

If you need help, the Earthdog Advisory Committee is running a training day on the 14th June 2014 at SACA Park (Kilburn, South Australia).  It is $2 per dog for you to come try, and get some training and help from members of our committee.  Only dogs of ‘earthdog type’ (small terriers, dachshunds, and crossbreeds of) are eligible to train.  RSVP is not necessary, but if you require more details contact Tegan Whalan on 0421 506 482 or email teganwhalan@gmail.com

03/2/14

The Power of Habit

When most dog training focusses on ‘rewarding the good’ and ‘punishing the bad’, the importance of habits (and habitual behaviour) is often overlooked.

Sure, a lot of dog behaviour is based on consequences. This is well understood.

But sometimes dogs do things because they ‘always have’. The regularity of performing this behaviour in itself drives further incidence of the behaviour.

It’s not necessarily that a dog learnt that it was appetitive to partake in a particular behaviour, but that it learnt that it could do that behaviour, and did that enough times that it became a habit.

HairlessHounds Photography

If you don’t want your dog to stand on the sofa, don’t let it become a habit! Photo courtesy of HairlessHounds Photography.

Sure, sometimes this habit behaviours start because of the consequences. For example, a lot of reactivity behaviour.  Initially, the dog was concerned about other dogs so barked at dogs when they got too close. This behaviour was reinforced, as the scary dog normally went away when that happened. However, while that may have been the dog’s thought process two years ago, after the dog has practiced barking at other dogs for a two year stretch, what was initially goal orientated behaviour became habitual behaviour – “I bark at other dogs because I saw them”.

 

Often, dogs perform behaviours because ‘they always have’, and there is nothing intrinsically appetitive about the behaviour or its consequences.

 

Take for example my girl Myrtle. At one stage, whenever I let her out the door, she would run barking to the fence – and she did this enough that it became a habit. Myrtle’s thought process wasn’t based on reinforcement or punishment. If you asked her why she ran to the fence, her answer would probably be about the antecedent (“I ran to the fence because the door opened.”).  It’s a very simple behaviour chain.

Habits can be fixed by concentrating on the antecedent.

While on one hand habits are hard to break, many are also easy to solve by simple management like solutions, which concentrate on the antecedent. In Myrtle’s case, if I put her into that yard through the gate instead of the door, she did not bark at all. After a week or two of putting her into the yard through the gate, she simply ceased to perform her run-and-bark-to-the-fence behaviour. The antecedent was removed for long enough that Myrtle got ‘out of practice’ when it came to this habit. She now can enter the yard through the door with no problems.

 

Basically, if your dog always barks when he sees the postman, or always jumps up when you come home from work, or always scratches the upholstery in the car, your best way to fix this is to just not let the antecedent happen. Remove the postman from view, don’t allow your dog access to you when you come home from work, put him in a crate so he doesn’t scratch the upholstery of a car.

Every time a dog performs a behaviour, he gets in practice and it could become a habit. You need to minimise opportunities for dogs to practice any type of behaviour you do not want to occur.

 

Instill Good Habits

Want your dog to rest quietly in their bed of an evening? Tether them near or crate them on ‘their spot’ for them to settle there. When you remove the physical restraints, the dog will have learnt to sleep in that spot simply because they haven’t had opportunities to sleep in other places.

Don’t want your dog to barge through the front door when you open it? Scatter treats as you open the door – your dog will never practice barging through the door. They’ve learnt to be slow and stay inside (where the treats rain from the sky), and so never get in the habit of barging through the door in the first place.

There are many more examples. Let your dog practice doing all the things you want. Set them up for success in practicing good habits. When you stuff up, the dog learns alternative and possibly less desirable behaviours – and it’s easy for these to become a bad habit.

 

Habits and toilet training

Through rescue, I have had a lot of dogs come in that are used to living as ‘outside dogs’, and have never been toilet trained. Almost all these dogs have been easily toilet trained with no or minimal accidents inside. Why is that? I would argue that they are in the habit of toileting outside – they may not even know it’s possible to empty their bladder or bowels inside because they’ve never had the opportunity. A good habit has been formed.

The first two weeks that you bring a new dog into your home is the best time to instil good habits, especially surrounding toilet training.  Many good habits can be formed by simply not allowing your dog or puppy to engage in bad toileting practices.

Ian Dunbar’s long term confinement area works on this principle. It prevents puppies from getting into the habit of toileting on carpet, tiles or floorboards by minimising opportunities for them to ‘get it wrong’.

However, there’s another upside to this – not only did you prevent the pup from learning the ‘bad habit’ of toileting on inside surfaces, they also learnt the ‘good habit’ of toileting on turf. It’s a win/win situation.

 

The moral of the story? Don’t let bad behaviours become habits!  Everytime a problem behaviour is practiced, it becomes part of the dogs’ behavioural repertoire.  Use management to break patterns of behaviour so they don’t become a bad habit.

Equally as important is to make sure your dog gets into good habits! Maximise the opportunities for your dog to practice behaviours you want.

 

Further reading:

When Management Succeeds

Ouch! Lead work

12/12/13

Teach Your Dog How To Love Your Baby

This article is designed to help you establish a strong and lasting relationship between the baby and the dog – a relationship that will last a lifetime. These steps are relevant to after you have already brought the baby home and the dog was introduced to the baby.

The trick is to make an association in the mind of the dog between the baby and good things that can happen. You are normally tempted to pet the dog a lot when the baby is asleep while pushing the pet away when the baby is awake. That is understandable but the opposite is actually a lot better.

 

Sleeping border terrier puppy.

 

Offering Treats At The Right Time

You want to teach the dog that when he/she is around the baby, good things happen: petting, playing, treats and so on. Feed the dog when you feed the baby and when you walk the dog, if possible, take the baby with you. When you apply this strategy, the dog basically starts to love it when the baby is active and awake.

The problem is that such multi-tasking is quite difficult. It is a lot easier when there are two adults that live in the same home. If that is not the case, you can still do a lot by simply holding the baby and talking to the dog, stroking him, offering treats and tossing balls.

 

Sometimes Ignoring The Dog Is Better

When the baby is not around, use some reversed psychology. Try to ignore the dog when that is the case and eventually the pet will start to eagerly appreciate the time when the baby is active.

 

You Need Some Quiet Time

Having a baby is time consuming and there are moments in which you want to make sure that you can tend to the child’s needs without being bothered by the dog. Have designer dog beds in the same room where you will feed your baby. Whenever it is time to give the baby a bottle, offer a treat to your dog and more rewards should be given when the dog just stays on the bed. Once every few minutes, throw a small treat so that the association between baby feeding time and treats on the bed is established.

 

Dealing With Baby Sounds

In most cases the dog will ignore the loud baby signs but there are circumstances in which the pet needs some help in order to get to that level. If you see that the dog is distressed when loud baby noises are heard, try to associate them with something that the dog loves. Once again, the treats work! When the baby cries or squeals, throw a treat! The dog will thus realize that the loud baby noises are not a signal that something is wrong.

 

Babies Grow Up

Even if the dog ends up loving the baby because of the perception that good things happen when the child is around, as the baby grows, things do change. He/she will start grabbing, poking and sometimes bother the dog. In order to establish a very good relationship between the two, you need to also continue paying attention to what happens as the baby becomes a toddler.

 

This is a sponsored guest post.

03/26/13

Classical Conditioning in Dogs

‘Classical conditioning’ is a term originally coined by Ivan Pavlov.  This type of conditioning is highly relevant to dog training.

While using dogs to experiment on digestion, Pavlov noticed dogs had what he called “psychic secretion” of saliva, where the dogs seem to know when they were going to be fed and began to salivate.  On further investigation, he found that whenever his lab assistant entered the room, the dogs began to salivate.  Salivation is a reflex, that is, a behaviour outside of the dog’s control, but the dog learnt to exhibit this reflex when associated with an incoming lab assistant.  Pavlov modified his experiment to further examine this phenomena.

Poodle type dog jumping over an agility course jump.

From here, the specifics of classical conditioning (sometimes also called Pavlovian conditioning) became published and well known. Basically, classical conditioning is where a previously neutral thing becomes paired with the reflexes associated with something else.   Continue reading